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20.08.36 Russakoff, Imagining the Miraculous

20.08.36 Russakoff, Imagining the Miraculous

This beautifully presented and richly illustrated book argues that, in a period in which "meditation before an image had become the standard means for expressing Christian piety" (10) and in which images and stories of the Virgin Mary were ever more widespread in European devotion, illustrations of Marian miracles that involve images offer a particularly dense locus for exploration. Focusing on French hagiographical and devotional texts, Anna Russakoff conveys the insight such illustrations can offer into how medieval creators and audiences envisioned and interacted with religious images. The peculiarly in-between status of these pictures--as two-dimensional realizations of textual accounts of (imagined) two- or three-dimensional images--makes them fruitful for exploring translatio between different media and forms of expression.

An introduction briefly lays out the book's central questions. Some of these involve material contexts: whether either text or illustration is specific about the type of image represented, for example (sculpture, reliquary, altarpiece, panel painting), or how various Christian "others," who frequently appear in image miracles, are depicted. The purported resistance or hostility of Jews and Muslims to images of Mary, a frequent subject in miracle tales, gestures toward a persistent Christian anxiety about images. This in turn points to a recurrent concern with the blurring of boundaries between (in)animate objects, apparitions, and living beings, such as how "animate qualities" on the part of images are portrayed, or how an image relates to its prototype (4). Such productive ambiguities, Russakoff suggests, are embodied on the page when a viewer "is presented with 'before' and 'after' scenes, with the most important, transformative moment left out" (3). She argues, drawing on Wolfgang Iser's work in reception theory and Scott McCloud's on comics, that the missing but crucial moment can be understood as a "blank" that requires the viewer's own imagination to fill the gap and thus engages the reader in the work of narrative re-creation.

The book's first chapter offers a swift but thorough overview of the early Christian history of Mary's role and the growth in devotion to her in the 12th-15th centuries, which was accompanied by the increasing importance of images. Alongside the rise in feast days associated with Mary, epithets for her deriving from hymns and antiphons, the Mariales of great churches, and works by an illustrious roll of medieval theologians (Bernard, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, Aquinas, et al.), Marian miracles proliferated both in Latin and in the vernacular. A certain number of Marian sculptures served as Marian reliquaries, and tales of miraculous images further blur the distinctions between Mary and her representations. The illustrated manuscripts that Russakoff focuses on, then, entered a realm already saturated with Marian imagery, both literary and visual, and a number of the miracles they depict "involve prayer to images that subsequently show signs of life." (12) Russakoff's discussion of these miracles and their writers, translators, and illustrators nicely brings out the multi-layered interactive encounters that representations of representations both instantiate and enable. Illustrations of image miracles often involve artists depicting artists and/or their works, while a devotee reading the book both observes a fellow devotee and, in many cases, performs the same act of looking at a Marian image as his or her counterpart on the page.

The following chapters present, in chronological order, case studies of specific texts or groups of texts and their manuscripts. Chapter 2 focuses on Gautier de Coinci's influential Miracles de Nostre Dame, nearly half of whose fifty-eight miracle narratives mention an image (evidence in itself of the centrality of these aspects of late-medieval devotion); nine of them present an image of Mary playing a key narrative role. Of these, Russakoff focuses particularly on three in which "the roles and appearances of Marian images...are directly involved with miraculous events:" "The Conversion of a Saracen," "The Image Insulted," and "The Siege of Orléans" (23). The chapter looks especially at how illustrations might try to capture the "miraculous moment," whether by showing a Marian image in motion or creating a sense of its dual materiality as object and body (having it bleed or run with oil, for example). It also offers a thoughtful comparison of the spectrum of representations of Saracens and Jews and notes the use or avoidance of "features of 'otherness'" that could assimilate or distance different groups (33).

Chapter 3 turns to the Vie des Pères, a multi-genre collection of narratives with a notably diverse range of characters (like Marian miracles themselves); of its fifty manuscripts, twelve are illustrated. Russakoff focuses here on four tales as they are illustrated in four manuscripts (three of which also contain copies of Gautier's Miracles): "The Stolen Christ Child," "The Painter and the Devil," "The Child Who Offered Bread," and "The Child Who Kissed the Virgin's Hand." She examines the use of the "blank," the unrepresented moment(s) of visual narrative that must be filled in by a reader; she also shows how these miracles put representations and embodied figures in varied relations to one another. A particularly fascinating example is "The Painter and the Devil," which "gives us both an apparition summoned by a representation and a miraculous animation of a representation itself" (57): the devil, painted as a hideous monster, appears in the form of a handsome man to urge the painter to depict him more favorably; when the painter refuses, the devil knocks him from his ladder, but an image of the Virgin and Child that he has also painted grabs him in midair, saving his life. Here the intersections of the represented and the embodied, the textual and the visual are particularly on show, and the illustrations tend to include the "miraculous moment" with particular force and clarity--possibly because both aspects of the story, the handsome devil and the saving image, so easily lend themselves to representation. Somewhat puzzling, on the other hand, is Russakoff's contention that The Child Who Offered Bread is "one of the most dramatic miracles" and that its illuminators make a "remarkable animate static ymages" (63): while subtle in their depiction of the image's ambiguously animate status, these illustrations are less notably eye-catching than many of the others discussed here.

Chapter 4 looks at Jean de Vignay's Miroir historiale, based on Vincent of Beauvais'sSpeculum historiale, whose seventh book contains Marian miracles; in manuscripts of Jean's texts, the Marian material and the sections on Genesis are the most extensively illustrated. Among the fifty-five surviving manuscripts of the work, Russakoff focuses on those with "significant cycles of illustrations" (66). The miracles considered here include The Painter and the Devil, and Russakoff suggests that the relatively stable and available image of the painting rescuing the painter offered illustrators the opportunity to experiment with the depiction of a miraculously animated image (71). The other miracles in this chapter include several of the "image-insulted" type, which return repeatedly both to depictions of Christianity's "others" and to the problem of animacy, the way in which statues come to life while those who attack them become frozen or still.

Chapter 5 looks at two works created in the 14th century, the devotional compilation Ci nous dit and the Miracles de Nostre Dame par personnages, a series of forty plays performed for the goldsmiths' guild. Of the eighteen surviving manuscripts of Ci nous dit, only one has extensive illustrations, and the manuscript of the Miracles...par personnages is unique. The Ci nous dit manuscript often makes little distinction between representations of apparitions and representations of animated statues, and the tendency for statues to become more animate than people is again evident. In the Miracles...par personnages, the Virgin appears in twenty-five of forty miniatures, usually as a "full, life-size person;" only two miniatures feature what might be understood as painted or sculpted images of her (91). Russakoff adopts Robert Clark and Pamela Sheingorn's idea of the Miracles' "intervisuality" (93), arguing that the manuscripts' images visually echo or draw on those from some manuscripts of Gautier's Miracles and showing how the creators of the later manuscript could have had access to the earlier one.

The final chapter on a 15th-century prose compilation created for Philip the Good of Burgundy emphasizes its use of grisaille, a feature seen intermittently in some earlier works but consistently present in this one. Russakoff argues that this mode allows for "more illusionistic" portrayals that contribute to the blurred boundaries and ambiguity of animation that have been a topic throughout the book (99). The work, "a summa of Marian miracle tales" in two volumes that draws on Gautier and the Vie des Pères among others, was translated and compiled by Jean Miélot, who also oversaw the manuscript's copying and illustration (100). One full copy survives (in two now-separated manuscripts) and there is a further copy of volume 2. Russakoff argues that the miracles as told in Miélot's text often stress the materiality of the image (by referring to what it is made of, for example) while the illusionistic illustrations, in which both living figures and images are depicted in grisaille with highlighted flesh tones, can make it difficult to know whether an image is to be understood as displaying lifelike qualities.

The recurrence of various miracles in different collections, and thus the ability to compare depictions of key moments, enables contributions both to art-historical research (on questions of intervisuality or visual "programs," for example) and to literary or thematic study of such topics as race and difference, reader-response theory, and ekphrasis. Treating the collections in chronological order has certain clear advantages, though it also means that attention to thematic aspects is somewhat scattered; a more explicit and overarching account of the challenges of representing animacy or what kinds of narratives are most likely to elicit or avoid depictions of miraculous moments would be welcome. Even without such a gathering of threads, however, there is much to value here, and Russakoff fully succeeds in putting across her central claim: that these manuscripts' participation in and reflection on devotion to Marian images enriches our understanding of how such images might have functioned for their earliest audiences. The way in which the figures within the text and those who create, read, and use it come to be parts of the same story, and indeed almost inhabitants of the same world, is characteristic of Marian narratives, and Russakoff shows compellingly how those boundaries are blurred but also interrogated by the visual imagination of these illustrators. ​